Facebook and Twitter profit from Chinese propaganda

Last week, both Facebook and Twitter removed accounts and pages they said were part of a propaganda effort tied to the Chinese government, aimed at spreading disinformation about the ongoing protests in Hong Kong. According to Facebook, Twitter was the first to detect the campaign, and it then alerted its social-networking counterpart about “inauthentic behavior” on its platform. Facebook removed seven pages, three groups and five accounts that it said engaged in a number of deceptive tactics, including posing as news organizations. Twitter, meanwhile, said that it had removed more than 900 accounts originating from China, which it said were attempting to sow political discord, “including undermining the legitimacy and political positions of the protest movement.”

In a related move, Twitter said that it would no longer accept advertising and promoted tweets from state-owned media entities such as Xinhua or China Daily. Facebook, however, did not say anything of the sort, although a spokesman told CJR that the company continues to “look at our policies as they relate to state-owned media.” As it stands now, despite the action it took against the Chinese government-funded accounts engaging in inauthentic behavior, Facebook seems to have no problem continuing to promote ads bought by the country’s state media. Xinhua placed four ads on Monday, according to BuzzFeed, saying the police have been “very restrained” in handling the riots, and calling them “heroes” for standing up to the protesters, and other state outlets have been running ads promoting the benefits of the detention and re-education camps China has set up for Uighur Muslims.

Despite its ban on state-owned media, Twitter has also apparently continued to run ads and promoted tweets from China’s state-run media outlets, according to BuzzFeed reporter Ryan Mac. In its announcement about the ban, the company said that advertisers would have to remove their existing campaigns after 30 days, and that it would not accept any new ones, but the ones BuzzFeed found appeared to be brand new campaigns. Some of them involve harmless positive statements about Chinese culture, but others promote anti-US sentiment, and one says that Hong Kong “used to be a paradise” and is now “engulfed in chaos.” When asked about the campaigns, a Twitter spokesman would not comment other than to point CJR to the part of the company’s previous statement where it said it would take 30 days to remove the ads.

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It’s not just Facebook and Twitter. After the actions the two companies took to remove fake accounts and pages, YouTube announced that it had also taken down a number of accounts the company said were connected to disinformation about the Hong Kong protests, although it didn’t provide much in the way of detail. The company also recently introduced new rules for state-owned broadcasters that require a disclosure statement on their YouTube streams. Despite all of that, the Google-owned company seems happy to carry ads for Chinese government entities, including the television network CCTV. According to a number of reports, the most recent ads push the message that protesters in Hong Kong are violent extremists and that state police are simply doing their best to keep the peace.

The biggest problem when it comes to enabling Chinese propaganda, however, isn’t the advertising, but all of the other content—the pages, accounts, and videos that get shared far and wide. Twitter’s removal of almost 1,000 accounts is a good start, but there are undoubtedly more—and according to Bloomberg, the company actually advises Chinese officials and government agencies on how to use the service to push their messages. It also seems extremely unlikely that the seven pages and five accounts removed by Facebook account for all the inauthentic behavior that China is funding. According to The South China Morning Post, the country’s internet regulator recently agreed to pay the state-owned media outlet People’s Daily $820,000 a year to post China-friendly content on Facebook.

Here’s more on the platforms, China, and disinformation:

  • Isn’t it ironic, Part One: The Chinese government’s response to the removal of almost 1,000 accounts for actions related to propaganda was to criticize Twitter and Facebook for encroaching on the free speech of Chinese citizens. A Foreign Ministry spokesman said the accounts were not the work of government disinformation teams but rather Chinese students and others living overseas who “of course have the right to express their point of view.”
  • Isn’t it ironic, Part Two: In at least one case, a Twitter user whose account was removed as part of the Chinese disinformation campaign said he was confused by the entire affair, since he isn’t Chinese (he was born in Croatia), has never been to China, and the tweets mentioned by the company as showing his participation were about artificial intelligence and Bitcoin. Best of all, Luka Ivezic told the BBC he is a PhD student whose thesis is on disinformation, and how artificial intelligence can make the problem worse.
  • TikTok and Toutiao: Sophia Xu wrote for the Global Investigative Journalism Network about the evolution of social media platforms in China, and how disinformation has become even more pervasive with the rise of new services like the short-form video platform TikTok (also known as Douyin in China), content aggregator Toutiao, and a live-streaming app called Kuaishou.
  • Online organizing: Bloomberg wrote about how Hong Kong dissidents are taking to a variety of digital and social-media platforms (most of which are banned in China) to organize their protests, including a Reddit-like discussion forum called LIHKG, as well as Telegram, a popular messaging app that uses encryption. In July, Bloomberg reports, Telegram became the city’s seventh-most downloaded app — up from 88th a year earlier — and LIHKG usage has grown tenfold.

Other notable stories:

  • Splinter and its parent company Gizmodo Media Group have prevailed in a $100 million defamation lawsuit launched by Jason Miller, an advisor to Donald Trump’s 2016 election campaign. Miller was appointed White House communications director, but stepped down after it was reported that he had an extramarital affair with another Trump campaign staffer, A.J. Delgado. Miller sued Splinter over a September 2018 article reporting a series of shocking allegations that were made against him by Delgado in a child-custody case.
  • BuzzFeed News says that Clarity Media, the company that owns the Washington Examiner and the Weekly Standard, considered making a bid to acquire The Federalist in 2017, according to copies of emails obtained by BuzzFeed as well as four anonymous sources with knowledge of the offer. The story also says that The Federalist, which has refused to disclose who its funders are, appears to have received funding from the George E. Coleman Foundation. The trustee for the foundation, Daniel Oliver, is a former chairman of the FTC, a director of the Pacific Research Institute for Public Policy, and was executive editor and chairman of National Review magazine.
  • Donald Trump seems to be ramping up his recent criticism of Fox News for not being supportive enough of his administration and his campaign for re-election in 2020. On Wednesday, he said on Twitter that the network “is letting millions of GREAT people down! We have to start looking for a new News Outlet. Fox isn’t working for us anymore!” A number of Fox hosts and analysts pushed back on this comment, including senior political analyst Brit Hume, who said: “Fox News isn’t supposed to work for you.”
  • At a Tuesday campaign event, the Beto O’Rourke campaign had a reporter for Breitbart News removed, allegedly because he had been “disruptive” in the past. After criticism from a number of members of the media, including journalists from The New York Times, the O’Rourke campaign said Wednesday it would not apologize for removing the reporter, since Breitbart “walks the line between being news and a perpetrator of hate speech.” However, the campaign said Breitbart’s access would not be restricted in the future.
  • On Wednesday, Donald Trump’s personal attorney, Charles Harder, threatened NBCUniversal with a defamation suit over a broadcast the previous night on MSNBC’s The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell, as well as a related tweet. Harder said the show and the tweet made “false and defamatory statements that ‘Russian oligarchs’ co-signed loans provided to Mr. Trump by Deutsche Bank, and described these ‘co-signers’ as ‘Russian billionaires close to Vladimir Putin.’” O’Donnell later said on Twitter and on his show that he “made an error in judgment” in making those allegations, and that the story was not properly fact-checked.
  • Mark Hertsgaard of The Nation writes for CJR about the overwhelming support from independent newsrooms for Covering Climate Now, a project co-founded by CJR and The Nation aimed at strengthening the media’s focus on the climate crisis. More than 170 outlets from around the world with a combined audience of hundreds of millions of people have now signed up for the project. All have committed to running a week’s worth of climate coverage in the lead-up to the United Nations Climate Action Summit in New York on Sept. 23.
  • The Washington Post writes about how doorbell-camera company Ring has set up video-sharing partnerships with more than 400 police forces across the US, giving them access to footage from Ring owners’ cameras, which the company refers to as a “new neighborhood watch.” The deals allow police to request video from homeowners’ cameras within a specific time and area. The company says the police don’t get access to live video, and homeowners can decline the requests. If they accept, Ring sends an email thanking them for “making your neighborhood a safer place.”
  • The Verge writes about what appears to be a growing issue with people gaming podcast reviews, in an attempt to take down popular shows. Apple’s podcasting service, the leader in the marketplace, is also one of the few major platforms that allows listeners to leave public reviews. While some hosts in the past have taken advantage of this feature to prop up their shows with fake positive reviews, the Verge report says some are using reviews to down-rank hosts and shows they don’t like by giving them single-star marks.
  • On Wednesday, Pinterest announced a new step in its efforts to combat health misinformation: users will be able to search for 200 terms related to vaccines, but the results displayed will come from major public health organizations, including the World Health Organization (WHO), Centers for Disease Control, American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and Vaccine Safety Net. The platform will also bar advertisements, recommendations and comments on those pages.
  • A BuzzFeed News investigation found a network of more than a dozen websites that pretend to be Canadian news sources and use fake personas to publish content, and are connected to a larger group of roughly 50 sites that use as many as 85 fake author profile photos among them. The investigation also found multiple Facebook pages that present themselves as Canadian but are actually run by users based in Kosovo, Israel, and the US. In some cases, these pages and websites spread misleading information, or promote visa advisory services to people wanting to immigrate to Canada.

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Mathew Ingram is CJR's chief digital writer. Previously, he was a senior writer with Fortune magazine. He has written about the intersection between media and technology since the earliest days of the commercial internet. His writing has been published in The Washington Post and the Financial Times as well as Reuters and Bloomberg.